In the first three months of the season, Arizona played six true road games. Over the final 22 days, they will play five. And as the Wildcats learned first hand on Friday, winning on the road is never easy and perfection is often required down the stretch.
While Arizona's undefeated start may have had some fans dreaming of Final Fours and banners, the team never wavered in its focus on winning the conference. As Lute Olson proved, when you win the conference, other goals such as a high seed and deep tourney run tend to follow.
After 12 games, Arizona is great position to do just that. They effectively have a two game lead over UCLA with six games to play and both teams have four road games left.
But it won't be easy. Utah, Colorado, and Oregon State are a combined 16-3 in home conference games. And if Arizona needs to win its final game to clinch the conference, a game at Oregon might be the most difficult of all.
This week will set the tone for the conference race down the stretch. If Arizona can split, UCLA will need to be virtually perfect to steal the crown. If they can't, it's likely to be neck and neck until the final night.
But a funny thing happens when Arizona plays on the road. Seemingly regardless of where or when the game is played, “U of A” chants can be heard at critical times. And it can make a difference; anyone in attendance last game knows that without the sea of red and blue, Arizona likely loses in regulation.
And that makes sense. Home court advantage is one of the biggest factors in college basketball. When opposing fans can fill seats it chips away at that, one person at a time. And on a neutral court, true fan support can be the difference.
With Brandon Ashley this team had an aura of invincibility, backed up by their record. Crowd support was nice, but hardly seemed needed. Without Ashley, there are clearly chinks in the armor. But the flaws are no deeper than any other team in the country. The margin of error is small, however, and the little things can make a difference.
Little things like the crowd. This team is good enough that the slightest advantage may be all it needs to win down the stretch. Winning the conference is likely the key to having tournament games in San Diego, and then potentially Anaheim. The arenas will be Arizona's for the taking.
And so, now becomes the most critical time for fans to support the team. It may cost a little more or be a little more difficult than we'd like, but there's something to be said for a fanbase collectively willing their team to victory.
Some fans seem angry it has come to this, citing complaint after complaint regarding Arizona's recent play. Expecting the conference title to be handed to us is arrogant at best. Consider that Syracuse, with its perfect record, only holds a half game lead in their conference, and still has to play at Duke and at Virginia (2nd place). Would you prefer that path? Conference titles are earned, not given.
Sean Miller often instructs his team to “Do what we do better than our opponent.” And so I implore Wildcat Nation to do what we do better than anyone else: travel. If you have the opportunity to get to Salt Lake City, Boulder, Corvallis, Eugene, Las Vegas, or Southern California, start thinking about it now. Let's sacrifice our voices, hearts, and wallets to will the ball through the hoop one more time.
With only two home games left, the ending to this season will be determined away from the friendly confines of McKale. But that doesn't mean we can't be there. The players won't be going home without a fight; fans shouldn't either.